You could practically count on the fingers you had stuck in your ears the number of slow songs and ballads performed at the CMA Music Festival show staged Friday night (June 11) at The Coliseum in Nashville. If the Country Music Association, which sponsors the event, aspires to lure in the young and drive out the old, it couldn’t have designed a better strategy. The Coliseum has become a high-decibel area, and the auditorily delicate who would rather muse to their music than dance to it are just out of luck. Moreover, the fact that these stadium shows run for four unrelieved hours — as opposed to the two or three hours that were standard for the old Fan Fair programs — turns attendance into an endurance test.
In spite of these institutional drawbacks, though, Friday night’s show had lots of scintillating moments, times when the artists managed to reach past the big screen/big sound and make real emotional contact with the fans. The lineup was SHeDAISY, Tracy Lawrence, John Michael Montgomery, Lonestar, Clint Black, Joe Nichols, Trace Adkins, Martina McBride and Brooks & Dunn, who performed in that order. Newcomer Gretchen Wilson did a guest turn on Brooks & Dunn’s segment.
Judging by the applause, Adkins, McBride and Brooks & Dunn were the evening’s favorites. But all the acts got warm receptions and kept the crowd’s attention. The three SHeDAISY sisters were a delight to watch and a treat to hear as they wove their intricate harmonies around such well-crafted pop tunes as “The Whole Shebang” and the more recent “Passenger Seat.” They also used the occasion to unveil their new single, the contemplative and longing “Come Home Soon.”
Lawrence demonstrated from his opening number, “Time Marches On,” that he still has the engaging presence and storytelling charm that first made him a star. The crowd seemed totally into his “Paint Me a Birmingham,” which brought him back after a long dry spell on the charts. And it was up and dancing to “Sawdust on Her Halo,” a number he dedicated to the partying instincts of his women fans.
Montgomery tapped into these same good-time genes with his rollicking intro, “Be My Baby Tonight.” He quickly switched moods with “The Little Girl,” noting that his own children drew him to this doleful fable. The photo pit filled to bulging during his rendering of his current single, “Letters From Home.” Two young women walked through the crowd brandishing a “Hug a Veteran” banner. “God bless the troops out there,” Montgomery shouted as he finished the song — and was rewarded with a standing ovation. Never moving from his microphone, he concluded his segment with his irresistible “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident),” a move that had many in the crowd up and boogying. When he was done and basking in the applause, he flipped his guitar over to reveal a big “Thank You” sign painted on the back. (This gesture probably reminded older country fans of Ernest Tubb, who had “Thanks a Lot” gleaming from the back of his guitar.)
With Richie McDonald sweating his white shirt into near transparency during the course of only six songs, Lonestar put on a spectacular show. McDonald displayed the charisma of an evangelist, exhorting the yearning crowd with such sermons as “What About Now,” “TGIF” (which the group will soon perform on Days of Our Lives) and “Walking in Memphis.” A master showman, he caught, autographed and threw back a baseball cap a fan tossed him without missing a beat of the song he was singing. He played a grand piano for “Walking in Memphis,” the Mark Cohn pop hit of 1991, which has become a Lonestar staple.
The oddest element of these stadium shows is that the crowd has been conditioned to demand no encores. Consequently, acts like Lonestar end their shows to thunderous applause that fades to silence moments later. And this happens even when the band remains on stage to play the kind of long finale that discourages an encore call.
Looking almost as trim and boyish as he did during his chart debut year of 1989, Black strode out wailing on his harmonica for a long and surging cover of Waylon Jennings’ cheeky 1975 classic, “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.” When he reached the chorus of “Killin’ Time,” he invited the crowd to “Drown me out.” Since the volume had been turned up to 11 at this point, there was no chance of that — but still the fans tried. “This kind of sums up the future we all should be thinking about,” Black said before launching into his recent single, “Spend My Time.”
Nichols, who followed Black, had some mighty shoes to fill — and he did a pretty good job of it. By now, he’s replaced the slightly puzzled look and nervous chatter of a year ago with something approaching a smirk and a swagger. The audience was resoundingly with him through “Cool to Be a Fool,” his intro, and “The Impossible,” his career rocket. Although it was clear the song meant a great deal to him, he lost some attention when he explained and sang “That Would Be Her.” But he got it all back and then some via “Brokenheartsville.” He’s about one more good song away from superstardom.
Then came the towering Adkins. As fabulous as some of his records are, they don’t even come close to capturing the magic of his stage presence. With his rolling thunder voice and sun-blotting height, he is at once menacing and hilarious. “I ain’t never seen so many rednecks at one place in my life,” he declared approvingly after goading these folks into an uproar with “This Ain’t No Thinkin’ Thing” and “Chrome.” This exercise prepared them for such other explorations of yokel life as “Rough and Ready” and “Hot Mama.” Of the latter selection, he instructed, “When we do this song, you just get ignorant.” The crowd obliged.
McBride was dazzling in her form-fitting black outfit and radiant smile. The audience was on its feet from the instant she hit the stage. As laudable as her songs about battered women and abused children are, it was refreshing to hear her singing about strong, take-charge women as well. She opened with “When God-Fearin’ Women Get the Blues” and went on to “Harper Valley P.T.A.” Her version of “Over the Rainbow,” accompanied by remarks about growing up in Kansas and watching the Wizard of Oz — usually during tornado season, was endearing as well as a splendid vocal showcase. She brought her set to a close with “Independence Day,” a case study in how a powerful story skillfully told never loses its appeal.
Barreling into the spotlight with “Little Miss Honky Tonk,” Brooks & Dunn whipped the tired throng into a frenzy, albeit a brief one. Dunn sang with the pop-eyed passion of a man pleading for his life, while Brooks bopped about the stage to reassure one and all that this was about having fun. After essaying the relatively tranquil “Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You,” the duo resumed their sonic carnage with “You Can’t Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl.” While their performance of the song seemed impeccable, the show’s directors — who are filming the festival for a CBS-TV special — asked them to do it again. It became clear why when, on the second take, Wilson zoomed across onstage in a brightly lit four-wheeler, dismounted with her guitar and strode up to the mic to illustrate just the kind of girl from which the honky-tonk cannot be removed. She joined Brooks & Dunn in finishing the song.
Then Dunn introduced her with the infelicitous phrase “the fastest woman in the history of country music,” which he quickly amended as the crowd rocked with laughter to “the fastest woman in the history of country music to receive a platinum album.” Even this reframing left much to be desired, but it was evident he was applauding Wilson for having an album that reached platinum status more quickly than any other woman artist in country music. (The album is Here for the Party.)
Wilson belted out “Redneck Woman,” her breakthrough single, eliciting all the expected “Hell yeahs” that she calls for in the lyrics. She left the stage to walk along the barrier holding back the crowd to touch hands, as legions of fans surged toward her. Their enthusiasm dimmed considerably, however, when she announced that she had to do the song all over again. While many stayed on, hundreds streamed toward the exits, and the migration continued when Brooks & Dunn returned to wrap up the show with “Rock My World Little Country Girl.” By the time the bright streamers arced from the stage and the confetti cannons began spewing, the audience was in full flight. It was, after all, 10:30 — and tomorrow would be another long day.
“Come Home Soon”
“The Whole Shebang”
“Time Marches On”
“It’s All How You Look at It”
“Paint Me a Birmingham”
“Sawdust on Her Halo”
“What The Flames Feel Like”
“Better Man, Better Off”
JOHN MICHAEL MONTGOMERY
“Be My Baby Tonight”
“The Little Girl”
“Letters From Home”
“Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident)”
“What About Now”
“Let’s Be Us Again”
“Walking in Memphis”
“Front Porch Looking In”
“Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”
“Spend My Time”
“Put Yourself in My Shoes”
“We Tell Ourselves”
“Cool to Be a Fool”
“That Would Be Her”
“This Ain’t No Thinkin’ Thing”
“Rough and Ready”
“When God-Fearin’ Women Get the Blues”
“Harper Valley P.T.A.”
“Over The Rainbow”
“This One’s for the Girls”
BROOKS & DUNN
“Little Miss Honky Tonk”
“Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You”
“You Can’t Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl” (performed twice)
“Redneck Woman” (performed twice)
BROOKS & DUNN
“Rock My World (Little Country Girl)”